A radical for the ages.
By David Kupfer
July 2003 Issue
Martin Sheen is a pacifist, a social and political activist who has not shied away from putting his body on the front lines, and a devout Roman Catholic. After rediscovering his faith twenty years ago, he began his activist work in earnest. "I learned I had to stand for something so I could stand to be me," he said as we talked.
The star of The West Wing and a winner of a Golden Globe award for his role on that show, where he plays U.S. President Josiah Bartlet, Sheen has used his fame to call attention to many causes. Recently, he was one of the most visible celebrities against the U.S. war against Iraq. "I am not the President. Instead, I hold an even higher office, that of citizen of the United States," Sheen wrote in The Los Angeles Times on March 17. "War at this time and in this place is unwelcome, unwise, and simply wrong." Sheen says that NBC executives have told him they're "very uncomfortable" with his activism, although NBC denies this.
Sincere, modest, down to earth, Sheen is a reformed drug and alcohol abuser. The heart attack he endured during the filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines led him on a four-year spiritual journey that culminated in his return to Catholicism. He carries a rosary in his pocket ("Keeps me from cursing," he says) and is an almost daily communicant. Known worldwide by his stage name, this son of immigrant parents (his father was from Spain, his mother, Ireland) was baptized Ramón Estevez. His early years were spent in Dayton, Ohio. The Estevez family was poor and, from an early age, instilled Sheen with strong Catholic morals and working class values. By age nine, he was earning extra money as a golf caddie at a local country club, with hopes of becoming a pro. In 1958, at eighteen, he borrowed bus fare from his local parish priest and headed for New York to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. To avoid ethnic bias in hiring, he chose the first name Martin after a good friend, and Sheen after Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who had a popular TV show in the 1950s. He remains proud of his Hispanic heritage and is quick to say that he never legally changed his name.
Sheen has created an impressive body of work, from his acclaimed 1964 Broadway performance in The Subject Was Roses, through extraordinary parts on television (he starred in the first TV movie about homosexuality, That Certain Summer, in 1972, and in The Execution of Private Slovik in 1974, and portrayed both Robert F. Kennedy in The Missiles of October and JFK in Kennedy). His films include Badlands, Catch-22, Apocalypse Now, Gandhi, and Wall Street. He's been married to his wife, Janet, for more than forty years and is father to four children, Charlie, Emilio, Renee, and Ramón, all thespians.
Over the past twenty years, Sheen has repeatedly protested political repression in Central America, promoted more liberal political asylum policies in the United States, publicized the atrocities of the Salvadoran death squads, supported the closing of the nuclear test sites, and marched with the Reverend Jesse Jackson to protest so-called immigration reform legislation in 1993. He was also an early demonstrator against abuses by the Israeli army in the Occupied Territories in the late 1980s.
Sheen was a featured speaker at an anti-war rally January 18 in San Francisco. His stirring oratory was met with thunderous applause. He delivered similar mini-sermons at subsequent peace gatherings in Los Angeles and in San Francisco prior to the bombing of Iraq. For this interview, I met up with him at the annual National Religious Education Congress in Anaheim following his talk before 900 Catholics in a workshop on spirituality and justice.
Question: Why are you so active in social justice and peace issues?
Martin Sheen: I do it because I can't seem to live with myself if I do not. I don't know any other way to be. It isn't something you can explain; it is just something that you do; it is something that you are.
Q: You've been arrested more than sixty times, in opposition to the School of the Americas in Georgia,
apartheid, racism, homelessness, nuclear testing. Do you recall your first time?
Sheen: My first civil disobedience arrest for social justice was in 1986 for protesting the SDI [Reagan's Star Wars initiative]. It was on Forty-second Street at the McGraw-Hill Building in New York. That arrest was one of the happiest moments of my life and, equally, one of the scariest.
Q: What are your views on nonviolent civil disobedience?
Sheen: It is one of the only tools that is available to us where you can express a deeply personal, deeply moral opinion and be held accountable. You have to be prepared for the consequences. I honestly do not know if civil disobedience has any effect on the government. I can promise you it has a great effect on the person who chooses to do it.
Q: What did you mean when you said, "Your faith has to cost you something, otherwise you have to question its value"?
Sheen: Once you follow a path of nonviolence and social justice, it won't take you long before you come into conflict with the culture, with the society. You can't know what is at stake or how much it is going to cost you until you get in the game. That's the only way, and the level of cost is equal to the level of involvement.
Q: What do you think of the way certain conservative media outlets have been handling those critical of war?
Sheen: I have taken a big hit for being a spokesperson for the Virtual March on Washington, the MoveOn [www.moveon.org] effort. They [rightwingers] went after the show [The West Wing]. A lot of these rightwing people have been after NBC to kick me off it; that was their whole thrust, to get rid of me. When you rile people up, and they get ugly, it's not a fair fight anymore. The anti-antiwar activists recently flooded the Burbank office and shut down the NBC switchboard.
Q: When has it become criminal to express yourself in this country?
Sheen: Right now.
Q: What's your reaction to your critics in the media?
Sheen: Their opinions are very lucrative to them; mine are very expensive to me and my family. That is the difference. That is why I can't get involved in this debate. Because we are talking about two different things.
Q: You're coming from a more humanistic perspective?
Sheen: Exactly, and a spiritual perspective. And they get paid for their opinions, and mine cost me.
Q: But you don't take it personally, do you?
Sheen: I don't, only because I don't know the people who are attacking me. But you cannot not be affected by it and remain human. And also I am not in this alone; I have a family, and they are subject to a lot of scrutiny at times. It is not pleasant at all. You just have to maintain your faith, and your sense of humor. Above all, not take yourself so seriously, and realize that you're not in there alone. God has not abandoned us. I don't know what other force to appeal to other than almighty God, I really don't.
Q: You support our military?
Sheen: I have been accused of being a traitor, and I have been accused of not supporting the military. Nothing could be further from the truth. The leaders are the ones who make the decisions. The soldiers do not have the choice. I support the soldiers as human beings. This Administration has led us into an area without vision. Bush has no clear understanding of what is being asked of the citizens, and the military is under his direction.
Q: Assess the Bush Administration.
Sheen: In order to understand this Administration it is helpful to have a background in [Alcoholics Anonymous's] Twelve Step, because it is real clear to those of us who understand the Twelve Step program that these are very dysfunctional times. We live in a very dysfunctional society, and this is a very, very dysfunctional Administration. The proven way for this Administration to keep power is to keep us all in fear. As long as we are afraid of the unknown and afraid of each other, he, or anyone like him, can rule. It's like they will take responsibility for protecting us. It's when we take back the responsibility for protecting ourselves that they get scared. I am amazed by the level of arrogance within the Administration.
Q: When we met twenty years ago, you told me: "Murder is being conducted in our name around the world and we're paying the price here at home." What has that price been?
Sheen: This supposed idyllic society we have is the most confused, warped, addicted society in the history of the world. We are addicted to power, we're addicted to our own image of ourselves, to violence, divorce, abortion, and sex. Any whim of the human character is deeded in us 100-fold. We're number one in child abuse, pornography, divorce, all of these categories; that's how we get paid back. You can't project something on someone else that is damaging that person and not become that yourself, it seems to me.
Q: What are your views on abortion?
Sheen: I cannot make a choice for a women, particularly a black or brown or poor pregnant woman. I would not make a judgment in the case. As a father and a grandfather, I have had experience with children who don't always come when they are planned, and I have experienced the great joy of God's presence in my children, so I'm inclined to be against abortion of any life. But I am equally against the death penalty or war-- anywhere people are sacrificed for some end justifying a means. I don't think abortion is a good idea. I personally am opposed to abortion, but I will not judge anybody else's right in that regard because I am not a woman and I could never face the actual reality of it.
Q: What is a radical Catholic, as you've called yourself?
Sheen: That is someone who follows the teachings of the nonviolent Jesus and takes the gospel personally, and then pays the price. I fall into that category.
Q: Which politicians do you admire?
Sheen: I don't really have a great deal of confidence in politics or politicians, but there are certain elected officials that I admire very much, such as Dennis Kucinich from Ohio, Barbara Lee, Congresswoman from Oakland, Howard Dean, who I'm supporting for President.
Q: Who have been your spiritual influences?
Sheen: Terrence Malick (director of the film Badlands) is a deeply spiritual, bright, articulate man who had a profound influence on me at a critical time. Twenty years ago, I left India and went to Paris to do a film which I was not wild to be doing because I was not feeling focused at the time. I had just experienced India for the first time, and it had a very profound impact on me. I went to Paris and ran into Terry, who'd been living there for a couple of years, and we got reacquainted and got very close, and he became a mentor in a lot of ways for me. He was able to see where I needed to focus and was able to guide me to a little clearer place. He would give me material, books to read. Finally, the last book he gave me was The Brothers Karamazov, and that book had a very profound effect on my spiritual life, and that was like the final door that I had to go through. I finished reading that, and it was May Day, and I went into what turned out to be the only English-speaking Catholic church in all of France. I had not gone to church in years. I came across an Irish priest. I told him I'd stayed away from the faith for a long time, and I'd like to make a confession. He said you come to see me Saturday afternoon at the appointed hour, and I did. That was for me the journey home. Terrence was key to my awakening. Also, many of my beliefs were influenced by Dan and Phil Berrigan and the Jesuit community they helped run in New York.
Q: How did being a golf caddie affect you as a boy?
Sheen: Those years on the golf course as a caddie, boy, those people were something. They were vulgar, some were alcoholics, racist, they were very difficult people to deal with. A lot of them didn't have a sense of humor. They didn't know your name. It was always "caddie." This was before golf carts were used. If they needed to play, they were either going to hire a caddie or pull one of those rolling carts themselves. They weren't about to carry them when they could get you to carry them for a few dollars. Some of them were so cheap, selfish, and stingy. They taught me so much [laughs]. I am so grateful to those people. Because the bottom line was, for me, I thought, don't let me become that! It was one of those valuable lessons about what not to be, what not to do, how not to do something. They were ignorant, arrogant people, and they thought they were very charming and thought they had the world by the tail, with all the money and power they had.
Q: How has the game of golf helped you to develop your life philosophy?
Sheen: Anybody who plays golf will tell you that you play against yourself. I am a very conscientious golfer. I count every stroke. I learned to play that way. That is the only way I can play. It taught me to be honest. There is no greater virtue than honesty. The game is basically about yourself. Because you can cheat at golf, but you are only cheating you, so what is the point? If you are gambling and you cheat to make money then you are a thief and a liar, so it is exponential. Golf is fundamentally about being honest. I see people hit eight shots and tell me they shot five. I never say a word. It is a reminder to me of what is at stake.
Q: What was it like to work with the Living Theater in New York?
Sheen: It had a very profound effect on me. I started with them when I was nineteen and spent two-and-a-half years with them. Through them, I was introduced to Women's Strike for Peace, the ban the bomb movement. It was an avant-garde theater, filled with very liberal, progressive, intelligent, passionate, heroic people. Julian Beck was one of my mentors and heroes. He introduced me to the Catholic Workers' movement.
Q: Your favorite roles?
Sheen: Badlands and Apocalypse.
Q: Is The West Wing a liberal fantasy show?
Sheen: The key word about The West Wing is show. It is not a reality show. It has nothing to do with reality. We have a phrase we use sometimes: "Present issues of great importance," and hope this will cause some measure of public debate, because the issues are so important. But we don't advocate it, we can't be sure it is going to happen, and most of the time we don't even know what effect the show is going to have, if any. But sometimes we ring a bell, and you can't unring a bell. Sometimes we can bring an issue to the forefront and just mention it, and by just mentioning it, whether it is global warming or women's rights, or the environment, we bring attention to it. What we try to say is that it doesn't matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat or conservative or independent. You are equally responsible for your place in the culture, and you must make a contribution, and you must accept responsibility for what goes down on your watch. You have no excuse if you are a conservative not to be concerned about the environment. You are equally responsible. Future generations are not going to ask us what political party were you in. They are going to ask what did you do about it, when you knew the glaciers were melting. On the show, we are not trying to get people to eat their vegetables; we are not trying to get people to become Democrats. We are basically trying to encourage people to get involved with public life so that politics isn't left to the wealthy and privileged.
Q: Did you ever consider running for President?
Sheen: The Green Party asked me to consider running with Ralph Nader in 1996, but I nipped that idea in the bud. I said I was flattered but I was not into politics and that I was not interested.
Q: Even after all your training on The West Wing?
Sheen: I am not a politician or a public servant. I am still a journeyman actor and a peace and justice activist. I'm a pilgrim trying to win my freedom and serve as best I can in the time I have, with this gift I've been given.
Q: Are you worried that this nation might be going down the tubes in a hurry?
Sheen: It is slip-sliding away. The last couple of years, we've witnessed the slow unraveling of a lot of very good legislation that was put into place by a lot of hard activism.
Q: What is your greatest hope for our species?
Sheen: That we survive, and come to know ourselves, and win our freedom.
Q: And your greatest fear?
Sheen: That we are not going to make it.
Q: Do you despair, or do you have hope?
Sheen: No, no, I never despair, because George Bush is not running the universe. He may be running the United States, he may be running the military, he may be running even the world, but he is not running the universe, he is not running the human heart. A higher power is yet to be heard in this regard, and I'm not so sure that we haven't already heard, we just haven't been listening. I still believe in the nonviolent Jesus and the basic human goodness present in all of us.
If all of the issues that I have worked on were depending on some measure of success, it would be a total failure. I don't anticipate success. We're not asked to be successful, we are only asked to be faithful. I couldn't even tell you what success is.
David Kupfer is a writer whose work has appeared in The Progressive, Whole Earth, Adbusters, and Earth Island Journal. He lives on an organic farm in Northern California.